There’s been a lot of discussion about what makes a strong female character. What sounds like a fairly simple idea means something different to nearly every person who uses the term or, in a more problematic way more often than not, brandishes it like a badge of honor. There is no one “true” definition of a “strong female character.” People seem to agree that it’s good to have strong female characters, and that it’s a good thing to work toward having more and better female representation in narrative media, but people don’t often agree on what that means.
My internet travels last week led me to some really excellent articles about the different forms this question can take. Corsets and Cutlasses raised the question of what “strong” really means, Lady Bee at Disrupting Dinner Parties uses Suzanne Collins’ Divergent as a case study because it does something slightly radical by including more than one token strong woman or girl, Darling Magazine’s Courtney Caggiano looks at the independence of Jo March in Little Women, and Ari Laurel from Be Young and Shut Up takes a closer look at the racial politics of the strong female character in dystopian young adult fiction.
The point these articles collectively raise is that when we talk about strong female characters, and female character representation in general, we’re really talking about at least two different things:
- Female characters who, as people in the world of their story, display strength of some kind. This is the kind of “strong female character” most people refer to when they discuss the topic.
- Female characters who, inspite of their personality, circumstances, and in individual prowess, are given strong characterization. Basically, what I mean here is that a “strong female character” could be a fully fleshed out, interesting character who is weak, insecure, and submissive – a “strongly written female character”, even if not a physically, mentally, or emotionally strong person.
And I think this breaks down into yet another set of distinctions that became clear to me at an informal workshop on feminist pedagogy. Everyone who came to the meeting had a different type of issue to tackle, so we ended up speaking across each other a good amount of the time. By the end, I realized that there were at least 6 different pieces of the puzzle, though some are easily collapsible:
- Teaching as a feminist, when your students know you have feminist ideals.
- Teaching in a feminist way, when you actively try to make your class a safe space for people of all gender-identities and use neutral pronouns and make sure you use sources that are diverse, etc.
- Teaching about feminism, which is fairly self-explanatory.
- Teaching as a feminine person, meaning, as a person who presents in a clearly feminine way (regardless of sex). I’ve encountered some students who upon entering their first philosophy class were expecting Dumbledore, and were clearly confused by my 20-something female presence.
- Teaching in a feminine style, meaning in a way that is nurturing, and other stereotypes that of course are not universally split by gender or sex, but which are often not associated with teaching at the university level.
- Teaching about femininity or uniquely female concerns, which is often difficult to distinguish from teaching about feminism.
While there is certainly significant overlap between all of these categories, I think it’s important to recognize the different challenges that come with each distinction. I think the same is true for writing – I think the issue is a lot more complicated than merely the presence or absence of strong female characters. And as shown in Linda Holmes’ article on NPR’s website, the issue goes beyond how we see women and girls, but includes how we represent male characters and how story-telling reflects our cultural expectations of masculinity.
To rethink my six categories from above in terms of writing, feminism, and femininity, in particular:
- Writing as a feminist: this is the issue of identifying as a feminist, and how that colors people’s perceptions of your writing. If you openly identify as a feminist, even non-political writing can be perceived as being part of an agenda.
- Writing in a feminist way: using your words and stories to actively challenge gender stereotypes, reductionist objectification, heteronormativity, and more.
- Writing about feminism: actively tackling a feminist issue, creating a story where people act in ways to posit alternative norms, openly challenging gender stereotypes, and more.
- Writing as a feminine person: facing the challenges of writing as a female or feminine person, and dealing with the perceptions that arise simply based on what people know about you. There’s a prevalent perception, for example, that men/boys won’t read books written by women, so historically female authors have adopted pen names or used initials to cover their gendered given names.
- Writing in a feminine way: there are enculturated stylistic differences in the way traditional and stereotypical women and men write. Feminine writing traits include the over-use of qualifiers (guilty), more introspection, a nurturing style of character growth, a deeper focus on emotional responses, and other things, while masculine writing is stereotypically characterized by stronger plot movement, a greater focus on action, and a more confident, declarative style. Of course, it’s a false dichotomy, and very few people – if any – actually fit neatly into one side or the other, but the general perception remains.
- Writing about femininity or issues that pertain uniquely to women/girls: this one is probably worth splitting again, as it focuses both on writing about traditionally feminine characteristics, issues, and values, and writing about the unique issues of women/girls themselves (child birth, relative societal pressures, etc). Sometimes this is called “chick lit” or “pink lit” and it’s often seen as frivolous. “Strong female characters” are often portrayed as being above this sort of stuff, as if they are too cool to care about clothes, feelings, romance, and other (again, stereotypically – clearly I’m a fan of the qualifier) feminine things. They’re also often too cool to care about, or are appropriately embarrassed by, or are preternaturally able to rise above uniquely feminine concerns.
I don’t think there’s any one way to do it “right”, or that any one of these categories is more important than another, or that feminism and femininity are mutually exclusive, or whatever people might assume. Even though (one more time with the qualifiers) these categories easily sift through each other, I think keeping these distinctions in mind could help clarify a lot of the debates we see about the representation of women in stories, and help us see nuance and diverse possibility in “the strong female character”.